Democracy is an interesting domain. Its central moral argument revolves around “producing equality” by removing inequalities of various kinds. It is interesting to note that all over the world, the process of dissolving one kind of inequality produces another kind of inequality. In the process, it cultivates a social mosaic full of inequalities of various forms—small or big, light or deep, symbolic or real, vocal or silent—bracketed in a metanarrative of great hope for equality. As we know, absolute equality is a dream that emerged from socialist and communist discourses. Democracy imbibed it, in itself, as one of its ideals. Tracing the history of democracies—underdeveloped, developing, or developed—one can see that most democracies resolve some kinds of inequality but not others.
Modernity, while helping us resolve social inequalities, produces other ethnic-based differences, just as migration has produced unequal social spheres even in most modern nations such as the US, the UK, and other European nations. So, inequalities in one form or another have been a constant folklore in most democracies.
The second folklore of democracies is the great hope of absolute equality, which has also remained constantly unfulfilled. Both of these—the reality of inequalities and the great hope of absolute equality—produce categories based on caste, communities, ethnicities, and so on, which are created either by societies or states through social functions or through governance planning and strategies. The categories contain mobilisational influence, which works effectively during elections.
Democratic states strive for equality through change-based development. Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate, once rightly said that democratic nations profess a superstitious veneration for change, which they see as a synonym for progress. In current times, in various developing democratic countries of the world, this progress is measured in terms of development. So, development appears as another great hope for democracies in developing countries, especially in South Asia, reshaping their electoral discourses. The “realities of inequalities” and the “hopes of equality”, along with progress, change, and development, provide the content and plots for electoral discourses of political agencies working in the realm of electoral democracies across the world. As we see, in the electoral discourses of the US, the UK, and other Western countries, issues such as insider-outsider, indigenous and migrant become a dominant discourse.
Promises made around ‘development’
India is aspiring to become a “new India”, trying to transform from a developing nation to a developed one. In the various elections, whether of local bodies, Assemblies, or Parliament, the term “development” has been the most dominant and effective discourse, either for the party in power or the opposition. Development as real and development as hope and the various promises made around the concept provide the main plot of electoral discourse in contemporary India. It has echoed in more loud ways in post-1990s India, in which the socialist dreams of change evolved into liberal dreams of development.
In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2007, Rahul Gandhi used the term “development” many times. At that time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was practising developmental governance in Gujarat as Chief Minister and trying to evolve a new paradigm of developmental vision. In the 2014 parliamentary election, he came up with a very influential electoral discourse, which appeared in various oral and visual narratives projected by Modi, his political team, and the BJP.
In fact, in post-1990s India, the new liberal economy produced developmental aspiration across classes, the poor, middle class, urban, rural, and even higher classes of Indian society. Growing exposure to the world, interaction and flow of information related to development, and the idea of a better quality of life reached various sections of society thanks to the aggressive growth of electronic and social media. The Internet, mobile, TV channels, and newspapers all together contributed to enhancing the aspirations among various sections of society.
The passive aspirations and comfortable availability of roti, kapada, and makan (food, clothing, and shelter) acquired active expressions and assertions, with the middle class now aspiring for a better quality of life and the upper class wanting to reach more economic heights. The notion of development in electoral discourse has evolved from the older roti, kapada, and makan to bijali, pani, and sadak (electricity, water, and roads), and then the aspiration of setting up one’s own dhandha-pani (business). To the aspiration of naukri (employment) was added the aspirations of owning businesses, small and medium enterprises, developing skills, start-ups, and opening one’s own companies.
As a shrewd politician, Modi observed this change and the emergence of these new public articulations and responded to them through his politics and governance. In fact, the idea of a new India, which emerged from the liberalisation of the economy during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime, has been visualised and intellectualised by Modi in his political and governance discourse. He has tried to explain his vision as that for a nation aspiring for development and national dignity, and this has shaped the electoral discourse after 2014. The expression of development-based dignity when added to national dignity generated stronger aspirations among people. Modi consciously invented this aspirational public as a nationalist public. This strategy worked well both in electoral politics and in governance for the BJP.
The poor as a mobilising category
Most democracies of South Asia are struggling to remove economic inequality that has created large sections of poor. It is an excruciatingly slow process and an ongoing concern, which is why in the elections of these developing countries, the poor appear as an effective mobilising category. Since India too is working to move the lower strata of society to the middle strata, the poor have for decades been an important mobilisational category in electoral politics. Political parties approach them with their own separate terminologies, such as Dalit, Vanchit, and Garib. Their concerns are represented by various programmes, schemes, and governance strategies. And they come up in slogans such as the Congress party’s Garibi Hatao of the 1970s to Panch Nyaya of today to the BJP’s Garib Kalyan slogan in its post-2014 political discourse. In all post-Independence elections, poverty has provided plot and content to political parties, as seen in manifestos, lectures, publicity material, and so on.
Next year will see another parliamentary election. While it is still a year away, the plots and subplots of all political parties have started evolving. As a student of Indian politics, I see the discourse around the poor (garib) and around religion (dharma) evolving as the master narratives for most national and regional parties. Garib and dharma may become the two key concepts or keywords.
The two keywords will be contextualised in the broader agenda of development. This might take two directions. First, the parties in power either at the Centre or in the States may narrate and glorify their social welfare schemes, their short-term and long-term vision for supporting the poor, and their schemes for poverty eradication. Secondly, the opposition may come up with critiques of these claims.
Why will the poor get such prominence in the upcoming elections? Although the poor are already the focus of electoral debates, because of the COVID-19 crisis the Central and State governments implemented various support schemes. They will want to highlight these in the upcoming election. The BJP launched Garib Kalyan schemes during its nine years at the Centre, which is likely to get special focus in the party’s electoral narrative. The party is collecting data from the grassroots. It has evolved an impact evaluation questionnaire to collect data about development issues, including Garib Kalyan, in various parliamentary constituencies.
Through its Garib Kalyan schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, pension scheme, and Anna Yojana (free rice-oil schemes), the BJP created a large group of labharthi (beneficiaries) in its nine years of governance. The BJP forged a relationship with this beneficiary group and constantly interacted with it. In its electoral narrative for 2024, the party will certainly give them special focus.
Parties in the opposition, such as the Congress, will have to respond to this narrative. Claims and counterclaims will emerge not only from the Congress and the BJP but also from parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party, the Trinamool Congress, and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, which will also present their assertions regarding the works they have done for the poor in their States.
- The 2024 election will be centred on narratives around democracy and development.
- Political parties will also focus on social welfare schemes and poverty eradication.
- The narratives will also revolve around religion, with discussions on Hindutva politics, and caste.
Politics of religion
The second narrative plot that might be key in the coming election may be dharma. First, the opposition may launch a narrative attack on the BJP and target Hindutva politics. Secondly, the BJP itself will propagate its work to improve temples. It will cite the grand reconstruction of the Kashi-Vishwanath temple, the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, Buddhist religious sites, and so on. The opposition may attack it as communalising development, but the BJP will assert that it has helped strengthen the tourism economy. The binary between religion and secularism is likely to become a central discourse as much in this election as in earlier ones.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement about the need for a uniform civil code to create an equal society in India has already started creating a “polarisation effect” on the basis of religious identities. It will certainly revive religious identity-based discourse in the 2024 parliamentary election.
Corruption is the third important narrative plot, but it may not acquire as much importance as it did in the recent Karnataka election. That is because it will be an election for the Central government, and not much media attention has been there on big corruption cases. Instead, development will take centre stage. It has appeared in earlier elections too, but this time it will be more focussed on garib kalyan, labharthis, and other regional social and developmental initiatives.
Caste, as usual, is likely to play a crucial role in the making of a mobilisational political narrative, which may play out in ticket distribution and political representations. Caste will also recur in the new form of caste mobilisation, that is the jati janganana, or caste census, issue. It may be woven into the electoral narrative of various regional and national opposition parties. The Congress has already started bringing it into its own political mobilisational discourse.
Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party, recently launched a Loknirman Yatra, centred on evolving a public discourse on jati janganana. Parties such as the Janata Dal (United), led by Nitish Kumar, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by Tejashwi Yadav, are also working on these.
As in earlier elections, in the game of narrative building, the BJP will set the agenda and force the opposition to respond to it. The BJP is likely to highlight its welfare measures, the enhancement of religious and national dignity, and the construction of the new Parliament building, and weave them into the narrative of reviving nationalist glory.
The key to success in 2024 will lie with political groups or parties that take the lead in setting the narrative and compelling others to respond.
Badri Narayan is Director, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.